Late one evening in Amsterdam, I stand outside the small studio-shop of ceramist Jeroen Bechtold and gaze for the second time at his Manhattan Series as it rotates slowly on a turntable. The 10 very stylized porcelain vases glow softly under the carefully focused halogen light; as they turn each takes on an added dimension. It is an artful illusion, a play of light and shadow on the pure white porcelain surfaces. Time and space are revolving with the pieces.
I have come back to see these engaging works even though earlier in the day I spent an hour — and shared a good bottle of red wine — in dialogue with the artist himself during which time we explored the innovative process through which he produced the series. Now I am trying to understand why I find these pieces so entrancing.
As I interact visually with them, it dawns on me that what I really want to do is touch them. I want to feel the exquisite purity of the porcelain and lightly stroke the many surfaces Jeroen has integrated into them. As Jeroen said to me during our chat, “Ceramics is an art form that we are usually only allowed to look at but not touch, even though it is a tactile thing.”
And of course I can’t touch these pieces because the shop is closed and there is a window between me and the pieces; and I’m not sure whether I should anyway. I could have had this tactile experience earlier, but at the time my thoughts and feelings were more engaged in the process as opposed to the end result.
Jeroen is an innovative and courageous ceramist whose work is highly expressive; it invokes interpretation. And there is a timelessness and freedom in his work which previously I would not have thought possible in what I perceived as the scrupulous and disciplined medium of ceramics. The Manhattan Series is composed of 10 inter-related pieces each of which stands on its own merit.
Each is also an architectural entity unto itself. But if a single piece were removed, the totality of the visual experience would be disrupted even if you did not know one had been deleted. In fact you would probably admire the incomplete set without noticing the absence. It would be as if someone who knew nothing about New York City, and the events that occurred there on the apocalyptic September 11, saw the skyline for the first time. When told the story of that terrible day, a whole new reality would be imposed on their consciousness — a virtual reality.
In creating the Manhattan Series and similar works, Jeroen became involved in a virtual world of ceramics design. It all began in 1998 when he was teaching in Canberra, Australia and was “confronted with a CAD/CAM system,” (computer assisted design) devised primarily for architects.
Being a “playful” artist, he explored the potential of this intriguing tool, even though the software restricted him to square shapes and only a few curves. Jeroen however focused on the strengths of the program and found new ways to create visual representations of ideas that were now entering his mind, and his theoretical world of ceramics.
The result was a series of “renderings” or “visualizations” of artistic works — virtual ceramics. He and others could now see what he had “in mind.” Interestingly, he compares his initial struggles with the techno-tool to the challenges one has with manipulating material like porcelain. Jeroen then worked with a Dutch-based company to produce prototypes of the Manhattan Series based on his virtual designs. The “real-life” results were models he then worked in fine detail and from which he produced moulds. As we talk about the process, I begin to realize that I am seeing the manifestation of the philosophical side of his art.
For Jeroen his art is always “in the back of the head,” and the finished piece is the consequence of the virtual artistic experience. We talk about how his work as a young man was very “constructivist, thought about, polished” but that with experience he learned to work differently. “Now I allow things to happen. I listen to my hands. I accept that. I accept me, as I accept the material. My work is in my soul.”
Although his artistic soul does not exist on a physical plane, there is a lot of real evidence of it in the shop. “The moment it [the creation] is in my head, it exists; it is the same as my virtual ceramics.” Interestingly when Jeroen worked on his previous series, “The Reconstruction of the Remains of the Holy Grail,” he numbered every piece including those that didn’t survive the kiln. Even if he destroyed certain pieces that were deformed in the process, Jeroen says they exist because he numbered them; and therefore they have retained their numbers.
The three E’s of art
We discuss the “evaporative, ephemeral, and elusive” nature of art, and take pleasure in these descriptors. We also discuss the language of art. Jeroen comments, “If I could express in words my anger, my fear, my love — all the feelings that are in these pieces — why would I go to the trouble of making it? But these are real pieces that tell my story for me. And it is the onlooker and his mind that completes what I started. And I think that’s brilliant! It will never happen with stupid words.” As a bit of an afterthought, he says, “Except maybe with a poem.”
And so we continue talking about art as metaphor, language as metaphor — especially expressions like “When all is said and done…” and I realize that we are trying to bring two realities together, the art within our reach and the virtual art which is inherent, latent, tacit, and understood — in his Manhattan Series especially. I am reminded of Platonic idealism. In a later email, Jeroen comments, “More than 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities. Cities are important. This series is just my reflection of ‘a city.’ The city of cities is Manhattan; it is an icon.”
In his writing Jeroen expands on this idea of mirror realities. “Events such as the Twin Towers attack in New York show us the fragility of existence, the fragility of our society. All that we ever thought was everlasting suddenly becomes fragile, translucent, and breakable. Fragile porcelain can express those feelings. The language of ceramics deals with eternity and breakability.” He mentions his need “to express the feeling of virtuality; ceramics that can’t be touched.” And the extraordinary translucence of his eggshell-thin ceramics implies this metaphysical aspect.
A few blocks away are the Rijksmuseum and its amazing collection of Dutch ceramics. Jeroen’s voice is still in my head as I drift through the collection, trying not to think too much, just letting it happen. I am drawn to two pieces in particular: a violin and a shoe, both made in classic Delftware.
During the Dutch Golden Age (1584-1702), and thanks to the Dutch East India Company, the Netherlands were engaged in a very lively trade with the nations of the Far East, especially China. The styles, techniques, motifs, and materials — especially of course pure white clay in the form of kaolinite — came to the West via this tiny nation.
Known for its tolerance for innovation and the unconventional, the Netherlands were therefore fully exposed to other cultural realities, and proceeded to produce ceramics that emulated distant civilizations. And the Dutch embraced the Eastern ceramic styles, going so far as to create their own industries (primarily in the city of Delft) where they produced a skilful representation of “oriental” porcelain, often with Dutch decoration. What they began to produce had an inherent cultural duality as well as strength, hardness, glassiness, purity — and precariousness. Such treasures were initially only accessible to the rich of course. The distinctive blue and white Delftware however eventually became a mass market item for tourists and lost most of its appeal in the Netherlands.
Drawn first to the violin — considered by many to be the finest piece of Delftware in existence — I am astounded by its beauty and intrigued by this musical instrument that cannot be played. However, if I owned a set of Jeroen’s Manhattan Vases, I doubt I would put flowers in them.
But it is the shoe that appeals most to my sense of composite realities. Made between 1660 and 1675, it is the shoe of a Dutch gentleman and is decorated with Chinese floral motifs. Why these miniature shoes were produced has been lost to history although some speculate they were humorous gifts that also have erotic associations. The intricacy and nuance of “other” cultural realities are always fascinating.
In addition to a greater awareness of the artistic continuum of Dutch ceramics, my encounter with the work of Jeroen Bechtold has given me a renewed understanding of the abstract and transcendent nature of this particular art form.
For virtual visits of the work of Jeroen Bechtold and of the Rijksmuseum ceramics collection:
visit Jeroen’s online gallery.
See a video of Jeroen’s latest works by clicking on the preceding link.
And see his workshop video on Ceramics!
Jeroen is a very amusing man.